Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Intervention or Transformation?

The prophet Isaiah, reflecting on the disastrous destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and enslavement of his people in Babylonian exile, flings an accusation at the Lord, "Why did you not tear asunder the heavens and come down?" (64:1) It is a painful question about why the Lord God did not intervene in Israel's hour of need. There are many situations today when we too are tempted to fling similar accusations: 'Lord, why did/do you not intervene: to prevent the massacre in Mumbai; to save the millions suffering in Zimbabwe; to save the Wal-Mart employee being crushed by rampaging shoppers in Long Island; to save 'Baby P' from horrendous abuse and death in Haringey, London?' This is the age-old puzzle of theodicy: how we can justify God's seeming inactivity in the face of undeserved suffering. 

We need to think about the implications of God intervening directly in such situations. Would not this be rather like a god in Greek drama who would fly onto centre stage in a machine and with a few short commands resolve the difficulties that the characters had got themselves into? Just as such artificial resolutions are dramatically unsatisfying; so we need to ask the question: if God were directly to intervene with miraculous resolutions to human crises, would this be ultimately satisfying or good for us? Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that we need to grow up.
Later, Isaiah comes at the same problem from a different angle. "Yet, Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, you are the potter, and all of us are your handiwork." (64:8). Isaiah comes to affirm that though God cannot be dragged in at our convenience to provide quick-fix solutions, he is already present sovereignly and is quietly at work. God is present by his constant power sustaining all things. But more than this, God is present as a transforming and shaping force to those open to his help. God, as potter, can do very little with clay that is hard and unyielding; but with clay that trusts the potter and allows the water and pressure of the potter's fingers to shape it, transformation becomes possible.
In Advent we celebrate God's Word becoming one with the clay of humanity. Jesus experienced all the pressures that human living involves yet did not allow the world to misshape who he was. He yielded completely to the potter in his formation. Jesus was not saved by God's intervention on the Cross but through his suffering, death and resurrection Jesus is the pioneer of new life transformed in communion with God; a pioneer who beckons us to follow his way.

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